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Experts recommend stay out of ocean after “first flush” or risk getting sick

The waves looked enticing Monday morning: a lingering swell offering fun-size surf, a light offshore breeze helping the waves perfectly peel toward shore and the sun shining bright for the first time in days.

But looks can be deceiving.

Mixing in the saltwater near shorelines across Southern California was bacteria-laced urban runoff that had rushed down to the ocean with the season’s first storm that hit over the weekend. Known as the “first flush” it left gross – and unhealthy – conditions along the coast.



For landlocked surfers itching to get in the water after a weekend of messy, cold and rainy conditions, it can be a tough to walk away from perfect waves but they risk the dirty laundry list of illnesses that may develop after getting in the water after the storms.

The first winter storm was strong enough to send water from inland streets and gutters down storm drains and rivers to the coast, but not quite strong enough to wash with it heaps of trash to be left on the sand at most beaches, as past winter storms have done. Though a big storm expected in a few weeks could make local beaches look more like landfills.

Still, while health dangers may be invisible without piles of trash littering the sand, they are present. While most health agencies advise staying out of the water for 72 hours after it rains, Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay would stretch that advisory even longer.

“We encourage anyone recreating at the beach for the next couple days to stay out of the water, stay out for three to five days,” Heal the Bay’s Beach Programs Manager Emely Garcia said. “There’s bacteria that accumulates and goes into the ocean.”

The list of health issues that can emerge after ingesting water infested with bacteria and toxins?

“Nausea, vomiting, really terrible stomach pains,”  Garcia said, ticking off just a few of the illnesses that can occur. “It’s just always best to stay safe. Enjoy the beach, go for a walk or run, but after a major rain, it’s best to stay out of the water.”

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department issued a rain advisory warning people to stay out of the water for 72 hours after the last rainfall, until at least 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10. Orange County released a similar warning.

“Bacteria levels can increase significantly during and after rainstorms, as contaminants within the runoff enters the ocean,” the L.A. warning reads. “Elevated bacteria levels in ocean water may cause illness, especially in children and the elderly.”

Heal the Bay is gearing up for the year’s first Storm Response Team training session on Nov. 16, where already 500 people have signed up to learn about how they can help clean up after winter storms at their favorite beach.

The nonprofit typically holds the sessions in person, but opted to go online this year with ongoing coronavirus concerns to teach the lessons on how to stay safe while volunteering, what to look for and best practices while cleaning the beach.

Garcia said while this storm didn’t bring out heaps of trash, they are eyeing a big storm that could slam the area around Thanksgiving that could spell trouble.

This weekend’s storm hit just as Capistrano Beach resident Vicki Patterson is gearing up to launch her own nonprofit, Stand Up to Trash, with the first official clean-up effort scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon on Sunday, Nov. 15, at Doheny State Beach.

After the weekend’s rains, she couldn’t wait to get started, holding an impromptu, informal clean-up gathering on Monday, putting out a notice on social media for people to come help sweep the beach for trash.

“It’s like treasure hunting,” she said, the group removing loads of trash.  “There are so many micro pieces and plastics inside the seaweed.”

She said she felt the need to start the nonprofit to educate beachgoers that the coast is their home.

“I love to create a community where we’re all working together to enrich our own lives to make it better for our children, who are helping out too,” she said. “I love the win-win and it’s such a feel-good thing to do.”

New surfer Cesar Solis, who travels from Los Angeles every Monday to surf with a friend at Doheny State Beach, had heard about the 72-hour rule to stay out of the water, but decided to brave the waves anyhow.

The San Juan Creek breached during the storms as inland runoff flowed to the coast, breaking through a sand barrier and sending water that had been sitting stagnant since early this year rushing into the ocean.

“My buddy is an experienced surfer. He didn’t think it was too bad,” Solis said. “He did say, ‘Try not to drink or get any of the water in your mouth.’”

Olaf Lohr, a surfer from San Juan Capistrano, marveled at the perfect waves rolling toward shore Monday at Doheny State Beach, only a handful of surfers out in the water, a rare sight since the pandemic has led droves of people to pick up the sport.

“This has been the first rain that washed off all the debris, all the bacteria, everything into the water,” he said. “Even though it looks great, wait it out.”

Lohr, who opted for a morning jog instead of his usual morning surf, has known people who have become sick for a month, even longer, after braving the dirty waves.

“It’s so appealing. But, it’s better to wait because if you get sick, you’re out of the water … you have to recover and your strength goes down,” he said. “You don’t want to have to go to the hospital right now. Just be patient, there will be plenty of surf coming back.”

Source: Orange County Register

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